Air and the Triumph of "Gutfeel"
Updated: May 22
An early scene in Air–the Ben Affleck-directed, Matt Damon-starring movie about Nike’s signing of Michael Jordan to the most culturally significant endorsement deal in the history of capitalism–sets the tone for what the film’s story is and what it isn’t.
The scene pits a group of yet-unheralded Nike executives including Sonny Vacarro (played by Damon) and Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) against a big board of first-round picks from the 1984 NBA draft and a career-defining (or ending) decision.
The men face the unenviable dilemma of deciding which players to pursue with shoe deals after the best of the lot inevitably sign with the deeper-pocketed competition.
It’s a familiar scene that feels a lot like one that sets up the central struggle of 2011’s Moneyball, based on another true story about underdog executives whose ambition for winning is bigger than their budget for roster talent.
Both scenes feature a gaggle of average (or a little less) men whose livelihoods depend on their ability to examine the present and predict the future.
But unlike the data-obsessed Moneyball, Air doesn’t introduce predictive analytics as the calming co-pilot that brings sabermetric order to an unpredictable and über-competitive world.
The defining moment for Vacarro and his band of merry endorsement-seekers comes smack in the middle of the decadent 1980s, a decisively pre-internet era when Goggle's founders were in grade school and Facebook’s creator was less than a year old.
The VCR and an endless supply of game tapes are Sonny Vacarro’s preferred tools for personnel evaluation when millions of dollars are on the line and executive careers hang in the balance.
Air harkens back to a time before algorithms called the shots, when calculators computed but sentient beings made the final decisions.
A glance at Damon’s generous midsection (which director Affleck gives us often with a discernible wink from the editing room) reminds the audience which engine drives the decision-tree action in this movie.
Air is a story about gutfeel.
The idea of trusting experience and hunches in Air is the antithesis of the data-driven approach to human evaluation championed in Moneyball.
For someone like me, whose life experience straddles the line of analog and digital demarcation, Air's depiction of average guys trying to forge ahead with inspired instinct is refreshing as hell.
The story takes place at a time when the best example of artificial intelligence we could muster came from the seminal sci-fi film The Terminator, which was released the same year in which Air takes place--Orwell's ominous 1984.
By studying grainy footage of a nineteen-year-old Michael Jordan sinking the game-winning shot in the 1982 NCAA Championship, the desperate Vacarro wills himself and everyone around him to believe what modern audiences already know–this skinny freshman wearing number 23 is going to be the greatest basketball player who ever lived and must be signed at all costs.
Dramatic irony is part of Air’s appeal and fun. Vacarro sees the future with a crystal ball that runs on pure gutfeel, while everyone at Nike, including its colorful billionaire CEO Phil "I-started-with-$500-and-a-dream" Knight, is mired in paralysis of analysis.
There isn’t a single number crunched in the entire film. Never during the hour and fifty one minute runtime does anyone ever turn to a computer much less a projection for an answer.
Instead, the pursuit of greatness and immortality begins with an inspired hunch and continues with a relentless heart and an analog spirit.
Those must've been fun days when the world was one roll of the dice away from being your oyster or your albatross.
None of Air's characters hides behind email bravado. Important meetings are conducted face-to-face. Good news may come over the phone, but, in keeping with Godfather tradition, bad news is always delivered in person.
Live by your gut, die and collect your pink slip by it, too.
Having spent the 1980s in grade school, it’s hard to recall a time when the legend of Air Jordan hadn’t yet taken flight and Nike was an underdog.
But Air makes us believe that this is a company on the brink of defeat. Every decision is make-or-break. Every action is do-or-die. Guess right and you can keep your job. Guess wrong and everyone in the department is out on the street with the contents of their desks fighting for space in a cardboard box.
The move is a fun ride for us guys in our 40s who in the mid-late 80s were playing Mike Tyson's Punch-Out on Nintendo in bedrooms that were festooned with posters capturing the decade's zeitgeist with at least one rendering of His Airness defying gravity.
Who among us wants to consult the metrics when we’re on a crash course with Destiny? Not me, especially when I know what the future holds and can’t wait for the middle-aged protagonist to bask in the glow of vindication.
Speaking of past-their-physical-prime guys with chips the size of New Jersey on their shoulders. At 46 years old, I’m at a place in life where I don't typically see guys with my problems as leads in major movies.
These days, upper-mid life crises seldom trend among popular Hollywood storylines.
When Tinseltown casts A-list actors as leads in mid-forty-something roles, it's usually in a story about terrorists kidnapping an only daughter or a heavyweight boxing title in need of regaining.
Air is different.
Its characters are career underachievers whose wives have left them, who gamble too much and whose kids are starting to realize that their dads aren't Superman. They're average chumps who can't fly and are one misstep away from being passed over and sentenced to drowning in the abyss of anonymity.
The last thing they need are numbers to prove how hopeless their situation is. But who needs probabilities when you've got your gut as a moral compass? No one worth following into the battle or making a Hollywood movie about.
That's what my gut is feeling.
Air is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Fred Smith is an an author and screenwriter. His debut novel, The Coolest Labels, is available on Amazon.com